IF EVER evidence was needed to give credence to the cliché that there is more to a book than just words on the page, then The Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945, by Isadore Ryan, is a prime example of a book that talks to you before you pick it up. It exudes an intriguing atmosphere.
The blurb on the back adds to this sense of intrigue: “After the Germans invaded in 1940, at least 2,000 Irish people found themselves trapped in France for over four years with no way out. As work, food, and money became increasingly scarce, the Irish struggled. Intent on staying alive, most kept their heads down, but some became involved in the war going on around them."
It is these Irish men and women who got involved in the war, and the small group of diplomats, who did what they could to help them (with extremely limited resources ) that fill the pages of this book. There are the stories of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, but the more interesting, not to mention human stories, are those of the myriad characters who also people the pages of the book.
Perhaps the most colourful of these was Count Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh et de Tycooly, “a member of the so-called ‘Clongowes Mafia’ who occupied many diplomatic positions in the early years of the Irish Free State”. During the war, Seán Murphy as minister plenipotentiary in Paris with Con Cremin as his secretary, along with O’Kelly, in an unofficial capacity, looked after the needs of the Irish community in France, which continued to grow as the war dragged on and civilian suffering increased.
Some Irish nationals joined the French Resistance and acted mainly as couriers for the movement; others tried to milk whatever system there was. The administrator of the Irish College had fire-fighting equipment installed in one of the college halls, as well as a shelter built in the college cellar, described as being “one of the finest shelters in Paris…Nothing save a direct hit could damage it”.
The Irish Legation did what they could to alleviate the hardship suffered by the trapped Irish, but even within the extreme conditions there were elements at work that underlined the moral and social mores of Ireland at that time.
When it came to distributing aid, women were second class citizens and often were left to forage for themselves. The main avenue of escape to Ireland was by boat from Lisbon. However, this was closed off to women as it was deemed inappropriate for reasons of decorum. “The Irish ships on the Lisbon-Dublin service had no accommodation for female passengers” it was explained in a 1942 memo from the Department of External Affairs, “and the only alternative route is by air, which we have had to rule out on the grounds of its cost”. No Way Out is an enthralling and informative read.